One time, many years ago, a monk was walk­ing along in the for­est. Suddenly a rob­ber leapt out and demanded money, food, and so on. The monk, of course, had noth­ing to give; this infu­ri­ated the rob­ber, who began rant­ing about all the trav­el­ers he’d beaten, how dan­ger­ous he was, etc. The monk lis­tened, unfazed, for so long that even­tu­ally the rob­ber became impressed. He wanted to know how the monk could be so appar­ently at ease in the face of such dire threat, when the rob­ber him­self — who was in a posi­tion of power — seemed unable to let go of his anger.

Eventually the rob­ber con­fessed that steal­ing was an ingrained part of his per­son­al­ity. “Wherever I am, no mat­ter who I’m with, when I see some­thing, my urge is to steal it. It doesn’t mat­ter whether it’s some­thing I need; just to see some­one pos­sess­ing any­thing makes me want it for myself. I’ve actu­ally tried to stop steal­ing, but I just can’t. I know I’ll be caught one day and exe­cuted, but I sim­ply can’t help myself. Is there any­thing I can do to make it stop?”

The monk pon­dered for a moment. “When you get the urge to steal, sim­ply be aware of it,” he said.

The rob­ber blinked. “That’s all?”

Yes, that’s all.”

Bemused, the rob­ber parted ways with the monk.

A year or so later, they met up again on the road. The monk didn’t rec­og­nize his one­time adver­sary; the man had con­verted, and was now a monk as well — no longer a rob­ber. “Somehow,” he said, “just being aware of my urge to steal helped it to fade and lose its power over me. How did you know it would work?”

The monk shrugged. “Every lust is a thought,” he said, and in that moment the for­mer rob­ber was enlightened.


These sto­ries always seem to be about wan­der­ing monks. I don’t actu­ally recall the full thread of this one, and I can’t seem to find the ref­er­ence any­where; the monk might have been Bodhidharma, who was the itin­er­ant Buddhist that brought the prac­tice to China.1 It really doesn’t mat­ter what the par­tic­u­lars are, because the essence of the story is what I’m focus­ing on here.

This is the time of year when many of us make res­o­lu­tions to change some aspect of our­selves that we don’t like. If you’re like me, a lot of those changes don’t really stick; they just end up being pave­ment on the road to hell. In my case, I’ve strug­gled most of my adult life with nico­tine. That stuff is gen­uinely addic­tive — and for me, it wasn’t just the high, either. The man­ner­isms asso­ci­ated with smok­ing were pleas­ant for me.

I liked the ting my Zippo made when I flipped it open, the scent of the lighter fluid, the giddy wash­ing buzz from the first few drags off the cig­a­rette. I like the feel­ing of smoke in my lungs, and the way I could study the cherry as it glowed, the way I flicked the ash. It gave me some­thing to do with my hands for a few min­utes, gave me a way to take a break from what­ever I was doing, gave me phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal pleasure.

Of course it also made it harder to breathe, made me smell like an ash­tray, and put me at risk for lung infec­tions — not to men­tion the other, long-​​term side effects such as COPD, emphy­sema, can­cer, and the pos­si­bil­ity of set­ting my house on fire by falling asleep with a lit cig­a­rette.2

Yet, like the rob­ber, I couldn’t give up what I knew to be a gen­uinely unwise behav­ior. I tried aver­sion ther­apy; I tried nico­tine replace­ment; I tried hyp­no­sis. Nicotine replace­ment helped with the phys­i­cal crav­ings, but the man­ner­isms remained — more accu­rately, the desire for the man­ner­isms remained.

I was gen­uinely stuck, mostly because I kept think­ing about what I was reject­ing. Each time I got a crav­ing, I faced it with great inner resis­tance and resolve. The crav­ings would die down after a few min­utes, but they always came back; they weren’t nec­es­sar­ily any stronger, but they didn’t seem to go away. After a while, they just tired me out, and I ended up with another pack of cigarettes.

I can put these events in past tense because things actu­ally have changed, and almost all of that change was rel­a­tive. That is, the way I saw things became dif­fer­ent. With that alter­ation of inner per­spec­tive, a dif­fer­ent under­stand­ing emerged. With the dif­fer­ent under­stand­ing came a rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent response to the cravings.

This had to do with a pro­gres­sion of med­i­ta­tion prac­tice, in which one learns to over­come thoughts or crav­ings that arise in the mind by patient obser­va­tion of them, rather than obdu­rate resis­tance to them. Meditation isn’t just some­thing for the cush­ion. It has prac­ti­cal effects in life.


One of the recur­ring themes in Buddhist thought is renun­ci­a­tion. I don’t like that word, because it’s not the cor­rect one. When Buddhism started appear­ing in the English-​​speaking world, some terms were cho­sen that don’t trans­late the proper inten­tion. Renunciation is one of those words.3

When I think of renun­ci­a­tion, the first image I get is of some­one like Mother Teresa — a per­son sworn to liv­ing in abject poverty, with noth­ing but a cou­ple changes of clothes, a bed, a rosary, a Bible, and that’s about all. Renunciation, to my mind, means delib­er­ately turn­ing away from some­thing. Pushing it aside. Resisting it.

That takes a lot of effort, and might actu­ally make it harder to resist what­ever has been renounced. By exert­ing will to fight against an urge, I think we offer a kind of psy­cho­log­i­cal energy to what we’re resist­ing. We push against it, which means — in the mind — that there’s actu­ally some­thing there to push against … when in fact, there isn’t.

A sub­tle under­stand­ing of the sec­ond noble truth4 lets us see what’s actu­ally hap­pen­ing here. Since we’re made up of five aggre­gates,5 there really isn’t any­thing hap­pen­ing inside us that comes from else­where. Our crav­ings, then, are not an out­side force; they are a part of our own bod­ies, minds, and con­scious­ness. Thus, push­ing against a crav­ing is really just using one part of our inter­nal energy (or will) to fight another part of our energy (or will).

From a Buddhist point of view, this is delu­sional — actu­ally, it’s non­sen­si­cal. It’s like decid­ing you don’t like the shape of your nose, so you punch your­self in the face to change it. Fighting a crav­ing is really just fight­ing yourself.

Rather than renun­ci­a­tion, I think we can apply the term let­ting go. The dif­fer­ence is sub­tle but cru­cial. When we let go of some­thing, we don’t focus on it, cling to it, obsess over it. We just let it slide into our aware­ness, and just as read­ily let it slide away again. This doesn’t stop the crav­ing from aris­ing, but it does stop the feed­ing of energy into it. Since we’re not expend­ing effort in deal­ing with it, it loses a major source of strength: Our belief that it actu­ally exists as some sort of out­side, inva­sive force.

During the prac­tice of mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion, one of the things we have to deal with is dis­cur­sive think­ing. The Theravada Buddhist monk, Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, has advice on how to han­dle it. Whenever a pow­er­ful dis­cur­sive thought arises, he sug­gests that we ana­lyze it using these three cri­te­ria:6

1. What is it?
2. How intense is it?
3. How long does it last?

This is a won­der­ful way to sep­a­rate one­self from a strong thought — or a pow­er­ful crav­ing. We’re able to put the crav­ing under a mag­ni­fy­ing glass and really study it. The answers to these ques­tions can be most inter­est­ing, because it might let us see where the crav­ing actu­ally arose from; and when we study the crav­ing with the under­stand­ing that it came out of our own phys­i­cal and men­tal responses to stim­uli, we can see both that it’s ulti­mately sourced in no spe­cific thing, and that it fades back into noth­ing with time.

Letting go is a remark­ably sub­tle and pow­er­ful tool for han­dling vir­tu­ally any thought or crav­ing that we’d pre­fer not to have. Naturally, it requires that we have a few moments to actu­ally look at what’s hap­pen­ing; this is where our monk’s advice to the thief comes into play. When you have a crav­ing, sim­ply be aware of it. Recognize it for what it is. In doing so, you’re already turn­ing it into some­thing other than a reflex­ive response to the world around you and within you; you’re bring­ing it to the level of con­scious­ness and, ulti­mately, aware­ness. Eventually, being aware of a crav­ing can be enough to let it fade to the point that it no longer trou­bles you.7

Letting go of a habit takes time, of course. It took time to make the habit form, and unlearn­ing some of those responses is not usu­ally an imme­di­ate process. Nonsmoking mate­ri­als advise deep breath­ing, tak­ing a short walk, munch­ing cel­ery, or chew­ing gum instead of smok­ing. If those things work for you in help­ing you to change the habit — to let go of the crav­ing — well, then, great. As long as you’re not view­ing them as a sub­sti­tute for smok­ing, you won’t feel let down when they don’t sat­isfy in quite the same way as a cigarette.

There will also be set­backs. In our soci­ety, we tend to have a polar view of many things. If you’re on the road to recov­ery from cig­a­rette addic­tion, slip­ping back into the habit can be crush­ing. You might tell your­self that you’re a fail­ure, that the nico­tine is too strong, that you don’t have what it takes.

Nonsense.

Every once in a while, every­one stum­bles, no mat­ter where they’re walk­ing and no mat­ter how well they know the path. To sit down and decide that one can­not walk cor­rectly because of one slip is the height of folly. Get back up, and keep on walk­ing. You will get there if you do that; you won’t if you stop. That’s a rock-​​solid guarantee.

Changing a habit takes dis­ci­pline and per­se­ver­ance, but it’s within the grasp of any per­son capa­ble of work­ing with his own mind. Whether you’re toss­ing cig­a­rettes into the gut­ter, turn­ing away from drink­ing or other drugs, or chang­ing your diet or exer­cise rou­tine, it is my wish that you will be aware of the poor habit’s call when it arises, and that you will be able to open your hand, let go your grasp, and allow it to drift away like so much smoke.

==

1. Bodhidharma called the prac­tice of med­i­ta­tion by its Sanskrit term, dhyana. The Chinese pro­nounced it ch’an. When the prac­tice crossed the Sea of Japan, the Japanese pro­nounced it zen. ^

2. That actu­ally almost hap­pened to me once, many years ago. I dozed off in bed with a cig­a­rette, and woke up to the stench of a smol­der­ing mat­tress. ^

3. There seem to be two frames of mind on this. Traditionalists seem to want to keep the poor trans­la­tions and expect oth­ers to learn the sub­tleties of their mean­ing. Others pre­fer to drop the con­fus­ing ter­mi­nol­ogy and use words that more accu­rately describe the inten­tion. The root of the issue is that the first trans­la­tions of Buddhist teach­ing and thought were per­formed by peo­ple with imper­fect knowl­edge either of English, the source lan­guage, or both. ^

4. Dissatisfaction is rooted in the belief that things are per­ma­nent and unchang­ing. ^

5. Buddhism sees each per­son as a col­lec­tion of five aggre­gates, each of which is its own col­lec­tion of sub­sys­tems. Out of those aggre­gates — body, sen­sa­tion, per­cep­tion, con­cep­tu­al­iza­tion, and con­scious­ness — arises aware­ness, as an emer­gent prop­erty. ^

6. This comes from Mindfulness in Plain English. The book is a superb intro­duc­tion to Buddhist mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion prac­tice. ^

7. Much. ^

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